Thomas Kinsella and the Egyptian Revolution…yeah you read that correct.


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‘Time = Hope + Disappointment’

from the Notebooks of Thomas Kinsella

I have never lived through a revolutionary period before, so I have nothing to compare this to. But it’s certainly more draining then I expected.

On a professional level I have tried to remain coolly detached in recent weeks- with reports for RTE Radio and ‘The Sunday Business Post’ and others. But in reality, although I am just an observer here, the mounting fears of counter revolution have sucked much of my energy out, and I am watching it evaporate in the unforgiving Cairo heat.

This is a period of deep concern for the “revolutionary movement”. Just in the last week a Supreme Court decision ruled that candidate of the old regime, Ahmed Shafiq, could stand in the Presidential election, and it also dissolved the freely elected parliament. The military gave itself sweeping new powers, thus rendering the newly elected President, in the eyes of some- little more than a figurehead. In the election itself the Muslim Brotherhood candidate appeared to win according to all tallies- however no official announcement has yet been made, and there are many rumours. Many, many rumours. There is heightened security across the country, and dropped into the mix is news that former dictator Hosni Mubarak is swinging between “clinically dead” and “technically alive” according to a confused state media.

Many supporters of the revolution feel squeezed between the military leadership and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In my report for today’s ‘The Sunday Business Post’ (23.06.2012) I write “While the daily details of constitutional crisis, parliamentary debates, street protests and election disputes can become overwhelming here (for Egyptians and foreign correspondents alike), the complexity tends to obscure an essential narrative.

“The revolution of January 2011 gained much, including the ousting of the dictator. However the revolutionaries did not come to power, therefore their agenda of equality and democracy was never fully implemented. Forces connected with the old regime remained in powerful positions, intent on defending their privilege.

“Thus the Egyptian revolution remains systemically unfinished. The coming days and weeks will do much to reveal which side, revolutionary or counter revolutionary, will have the most impact on how this will end.”

There are many cold, factual pieces about the revolution/ counter revolution battle in Egypt, and I have also written many. But in recent days, I have been contemplating the less obvious, and more abstract nature of this. Often observations about the Egyptian revolution written from outside the country can lack one essential aspect- the sense of heightened emotion people feel.

How passionate the participants (and us close observers) and general citizenry feel. How fears, hopes and disappointment moves people and organisations in great sweeping ways, during this revolution.

Thomas Kinsella is Ireland’s greatest living poet. His poetry is not really politically radical, indeed not very optimistic in many ways. My personal beliefs certainly do not chime fully with his poetic vision. But his body of work amounts to one of the greatest sustained engagements between an Irish writer and the questions surrounding our existence.

He may seem an odd place to retreat to, when contemplating the Egyptian revolution. But anyway that’s where my mind, melting in the Cairo heat, has staggered to in recent days. My thoughts are not systematic or fully formed- they are just a muddle- a bit like Egypt at the moment.

Because at this very moment, when the prospects of the revolution seem so perilous, when the spectre of counter revolution hangs heavy over Egypt- it may be worth remembering, that life is one of contrast. An existential dance between Hope and Disappointment. These dark days will surely pass, the revolution has won much and its inspirational hope will mean it will emerge again.

Kinsella sees reality as one of contested opposition. In his early notebooks he extols the equation, ‘Time = Hope + Disappointment’. Life is doomed by inevitable disappointment in this Kinsellian universe, it can be but endured. Poetry, love and other “urges” (sometimes political) are admirable hopeful strategies of adjustment to this doomed fate. The hope side of his dialectic is intrinsic to human experience, but in the end futile. Disappointment subsumes its opposite, synthesising it into infinite dehumanised time.

In his sprawling, muscular elegy, ‘The Messeger’ Kinsella charts his late father’s (a labour activist and trade unionist) lifetime in reverse. By inverting time’s arrow, Kinsella allows the inherent disappointment of the later life to be uplifted by the end of the poem, by the hopefulness of his father’s early idealism. It is a case of technical form triumphing over living inevitability.

In a series of scenes, his father John’s life is imagined, reading Marx as a young worker in the 1920s. John’s hopeful mind lingers upon the vision of tragic inspiration forever burnt into the collective consciousness of the Irish left. ‘Connolly strapped in a chair/regarding the guns/that shall pronounce his name for ever’. Later a faithful follower of James Larkin and his proletarian proselytising, John was instrumental in the formation of the first trade union in Guinness Brewery. Kinsella recalls his father at an election rally outside the Black Lion in Inchicore- fiery and heroic. “He is good looking and dark/He has a raincoat belted tight/and his hair is brushed back, like what actor/He is shouting about the Blueshirts, but his voice is hoarse/His arm pointing upwards.” Later Kinsella, a semi aware child, is led by his father’s hand out of mass, as Father Collier roars from the pulpit. ‘thick white hair, a red face/a black mouth shouting/Godless Russia after us’.

His father’s struggles are recalled, but the tone of respect is substantially qualified. The socialist hope in equality and democracy, personified in the “half fierce force” of his father, is flawed.

“For there is really nothing to be done/There is an urge, and it is valuable/but it is of no avail”

Of no avail not so much because of some inherent political or economic faults, rather because such a revolutionary project is rendered almost meaningless when set beside life’s constants – disappointment and death. To the action ready Leninist who yearns to know what is to be done? Kinsella replies with the sobering ‘really nothing’.

One reaction to these lines could be to denigrate them as product of weary bourgeois adulthood. But with each reading my mind moved from reflexive political scorn. Kinsella’s reflections are subtle. For even though he believes his father’s struggle “of no avail”, there is an urge to do good, “and it is valuable”.

Surely Kinsella is correct on at least one essential point, disappointment is a constant in life, and it cannot be decreed away. Every revolution is destined to disappoint, every hard won reform later to be damned as paltry by radicals or condescended as inevitable by lying conservatives. Every personal hope and dream unfulfilled as we originally hoped. Unquestionably our personal and public lives are rendered objectively meaningless by gorging time. Yet this is not enough reason to retreat from involvement in the progressive cause. There remains “an urge”, maybe just as much a constant as death and disappointment. This urge cannot overcome mortality, but it can achieve less insurmountable goals- for instance maybe the extension of democratic accountability into the market, with the replacement of private profiteering with conscious public planning? Maybe?

Alas, the cause of social justice can never compete with the religious promise of eternal life under the warm glow of God’s love- in so doing overcoming both death and disappointment. Democracy, socialism, or social justice may be good, but they are not that good.

Visualising his father making a fiery speech on a Labour Party platform, Kinsella remains sceptical, yet believes it is in such moments where something precious is found.

‘Goodness is where you find it/Abnormal/A pearl’

A world shaped predominantly by people like his father, would see disappointment continue to darken our lives and death destroy everything, but where temporal society would be decent. This is the hope.

The Egyptian revolution has sparkled brightly with all the young pearls that have supported, fought, and died for it. Even in a time of dark disappointment, like now, they still light the way of hope.

(I love this scene from an ‘Arts Lives’ documentary about Kinsella. It’s so tender and funny. His lifelong muse Eleanor, the inspiration for much of his wonderful early love poetry, is both praising and gently chiding Thomas in an amusing, and dare I say, distinctively Irish woman’s way…I think this is basically like having a video of an interview between Keats and Fanny Brawne.

Originally posted on David’s Arab Spring on My Mind blog, on Saturday 23rd of June, 2012.

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13 Responses

  1. David-Joseph Cribbon

    June 25, 2012 3:59 pm

    This ‘analysis’ of the trajectory of Egypt’s Arab Spring contains a number of fallacies about the causes of modern social upheaval, the most glaring of which is that the cause of these recent revolutions has been “Hope”.

    Rather, the cause of these recent revolutions centres fully on consumerist discontent. What is striking about these recent revolutions is their complete ‘lack’ of ideological grievance and therefore their complete lack of ‘revolutionary hope’. To suggest, therefore, that the unsettled worries of the Egyptian population are ‘the symptoms of the inevitable disappointment that all hope brings’, as a kind of law of emotional entropy typical of the works of Thomas Kinsella, is utter nonsense.

    If we should have any worry about the future course of these revolutions, it is not that the populations may be disappointed by the results of liberal democracy, rather it is that the ideological vacuum left by the true causes of these revolutions will be filled by more radial candidates than ?the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, because then theocracy will be but a rowboat ride from our European shore.?

  2. Donagh Brennan

    June 26, 2012 8:38 am

    Oh sorry David, did I annoy you? Dave Lynch has been reporting for months from Cairo. This post is a reflection on what is happening there and about the possibilities and limitations of standing up to power in an authoritarian regime. You meanwhile are in Dublin talking about something called ‘consumerist discontent’ and said that Dave’s post was based on fallacies and is utter nonsense.

    So I chose to treat your comment with the utter contempt I felt it deserved.

  3. David-Joseph Cribbon

    June 26, 2012 5:28 pm

    Lets try a little philosophy, shall we?

    Any reasoned conclusion about the cause of a particular effect (change in the contingent properties of thing or system) is founded on preexisting a priori propositions that condition that conclusion. No “inductive intimacy” can therefore be a claim to have more veracity, merely because of this induction is derived from the immediate experience of the particulars involved, therefore your objection, based on location, is logically invalid.

    The analysis of the situation in Egypt, Greece or any x country, must proceed from a pre-established understanding of the causal conditions for social change, and civil unrest. In consumer capitalism, those conditions are grievances related to the specifies of modern consumerist discontent and malcontent, and are locatable in the the social relations that result from modern “status” consumption.

    The above article typifies the weaknesses of the left today.

    1. Its arguments are pre-conditioned by outmoded causal relations that belong to industrial capitalism – a form which no longer exists.

    2. Its weak analyses are laced up with platitudes and stale presuppositions about social relations which no longer are the causes of – a. class identification – b. class struggle.

    Therefore when revolution or civil unrest happens today, they fly out these locales with their prejudges packed away as neatly as their change of underwear.

    The test of any analysis is “prediction” (Nietzsche) and, even form my cosy Dublin studio, I can predict that a revolution made without a revolutionary vision, i.e. one that merely has the immediate goal of deposing, has behind the scenes those for whom the future is something they want, and will seek to, shape. In Egypt it is those that favour theocracy.

  4. Daniel Webb

    June 26, 2012 6:01 pm

    you’re citing Nietzsche to prove your point?

    What are you, sixteen?

  5. David-Joseph Cribbon

    June 26, 2012 6:45 pm

    @ Webb: Not mush of a contention.

    Nietzsche, as it happens, proved the source of leftist whinging – resentment.

    If you had the ability to further a more reasoned response, rather a platitudinous namecheck of a philosopher that the left have prejudiced antipathy towards, you would not have so easily proved my stated argument.

    As far as I am concerned the left does not think at all, rather it merely slanders with the worn triteness of a clienteles streetwalker.

    If I choose to subject my arguments to scrutiny of sound logic, it is because I have chosen intellectual procreation over a quick handjob form a Marxist whore.

  6. David Kellogg

    June 27, 2012 12:39 am


    Since the essay never makes the claim that “the cause of these recent revolutions has been ‘Hope,'” the glaring fallacy is yours. Try to read more carefully.

    David Kellogg

  7. David-Joseph Cribbon

    June 27, 2012 1:26 am

    @Kellogg: Ad hominem – another fallacious contention.

    The essay makes explicit and implicit reference to “revolutionary hope” and uses the poetry of Thomas Kinsella to ‘explain’ away the reasons for its inevitable “disappointment” – i.e. a kind of emotional entropy of the soul.

    This trite form of analysis, I have argued, is something that typifies a general tendency in the left, and it leads to a misunderstanding of the root causes of modern social grievance, therefore it is factious.

    My assessment, that it is “factious nonsense”, still stands uncontested.

    Mere ad hominem, or platitudinous objections to the mention of a philosopher, only amount to inarticulate muck throwing, a characteristic of both onanistic primates and leftists. It leads one to conclude that although they shout “Revolution, revolution!” in the arab world, in the dank corners of the irish left a more apt cry would be “Evolution, evolution!”

  8. David Kellogg

    June 27, 2012 2:02 am

    Ad hominem? You must be joking. I simply made the point that the essay never claims that hope is a cause of the revolutions. Hope in the essay is an *effect* of the revolutions.

    Further, your “argument” about the “general tendency in the left” is merely a claim, not an argument, since you have brought no evidence to bear. So again, a fallacy (hasty generalization) on your part.


  9. David Kellogg

    June 27, 2012 2:09 am

    David-Joseph, can you clarify whether by “factious” you mean “fatuous”? You never used the phrase “factious nonsense” earlier (you wrote “utter nonsense”), so your putting it in quotes was rather odd — even more so because the phrase “factious nonsense” makes no sense.

    You seem to be using words rather loosely. This is not *ad hominem*, merely an observation based on the evidence of your comments.

  10. David-Joseph Cribbon

    June 27, 2012 12:51 pm

    Evidence –

    1. Ad hominem – RE: “reading”

    2. “Factious nonsense” – i.e. the fallacious tendency to assume that “inductive intimacy” (intimacy with the particulars that make a fact) somehow makes for a ‘more valid’ form of induction – i.e. conclusion about sense phenomena. The quotes are because it refers to Wittgenstein’s use of the term “nonsense” – i.e. as having no veracity through the senses – not ‘semantic sense’. This nonsense causes inevitable faction within the left’s form of conclusions and it reduces all of its intellectual credibility.

    3. “a fallacy (hasty generalisation) on your part” – A generalisation can only be a fallacy if it attempts to universal from a particular – i.e. no universal can be drawn form induction, therefore from conclusions drawn form facts. As I have stated – the fallacy I pointed out as a tendency in the left is drawn from “a priori preconditions and presuppositions…he has pack as neatly away, along with a fresh change of underwear..”  – the fallacy is one of ‘causal conclusion’ from fallacious premises. (There is nothing “hasty” about this analysis of this form of leftist fallacy – its commonplace usage renders it a ‘tendency’.)

    4. Hope is not an “effect” – hope is a vision of a possible tomorrow. For a revolution to depose a tyrant without such a vision creates a vacuum, this will be filled by those waiting in the wings…”those for whom tomorrow is something they want to shape” according to their radical vision for it.

    5. My prediction is precisely that – Egypt is on the road to theocracy. Not two days after being elected Mohammed Morsi has renewed ties with Iran.

    My contention is with the article’s fallacious leftist tendencies (3), and with it’s lack of prognosis about the direction of Egypt’s revolution (5).

    As of yet I have had no serious engagement with this contention as as such it still stands.

    Let me make it clear – the contentious fallacy here is “a priori”. Ergo “facts” only confound the problem, as all facts are ‘dumb’ without conclusions. Conclusions are not drawn from the facts (sense) – but are preconditioned by “a priori” propositions and judgements, induction is condition by these presuppositions. Where these presuppositions lead to fallacious induction – you get “Factious nonsense” (Wittgenstein) which creates contentions and disputes “where there are none” – (i.e. leftist hair-splitting over causes which are none)

    Ad hominem wont change the issue, nor will purposeful blindness. The incredulity here stems from an endemic intellectual complacency in the left, which leaves it – out of date, out of touch and impotent. The left is an old tramp, with its limp member hanging out without red-faced embarrassment, muttering to itself about a half remembered yesteryear, calling to the masses to man invisible barricades – more of a quixotic clown than the standard-bearers of revolution.